Avatar (2009) is pretty great, even though its story feels very common | Retro Review

James Cameron’s late 2000s sci-fi epic is one of the biggest movies of all-time – Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Directed by James Cameron — Screenplay by James Cameron.

Whether it’s due to disbelief, overhype, or that product having been oversold, I think we’ve all been guilty of calling something widely praised or beloved ‘overrated.’ When Avatar first came out, people were perhaps slightly hyperbolic when it came to praising the somewhat allegorical James Cameron sci-fi epic. I was a teenager when it was released, and I remember once standing in line at a Blockbuster as people were over-the-moon excited to own the film on physical media. I hadn’t seen it in theaters and, after having seen it, I struggled to really be as thoroughly overwhelmed by it as other people seemed to have been. I really enjoyed the Leona Lewis song, and I thought it looked really good. I recognized that it was a solid picture, but, when I finally saw it, I do remember thinking something along the lines of “is that what all the fuss was about?” It wasn’t the best thing since sliced bread, which it certainly felt like it had been sold as.

Since its release on physical media, Avatar has sort of fallen into the background as superhero films and the eventual return of Star Wars took center stage in pop culture and entertainment. But, after having had its release be postponed several times, this year Avatar will finally have a sequel. With the imminent release of Avatar: The Way of Water, I thought it was finally time to revisit the original film, which has often been relegated to being used as an entertainment joke or punchline, even though that’s hardly fair.

I, admittedly, love the SNL skit about Ryan Gosling’s character being obsessed with how the title font is supposedly lazily done, but some part of the central joke is that it’s funny that anyone would be obsessed with a film like Avatar, which came and made a lot of money but went away without much of a cultural imprint being left behind. I guess, the thing about the font being lazy must also somewhat be related to the other common criticism of Avatar, i.e. how familiar the basic story is, which I’ll get to later.

If you’ve somehow landed on this review without any knowledge or memory of Avatar, then allow me to briefly sum up the premise (feel free to jump to the next paragraph, if you don’t need a recap). The film takes place in the 22nd Century on a moon called Pandora far away from Earth. People of Earth have colonized the distant moon, which is inhabited by these tall and blue humanoid aliens known as the Na’vi, for the purpose of mining the mineral ‘unobtanium.’ After his twin brother dies, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, is sent to Pandora to replace him. Humans have created these Na’vi-human hybrids known as ‘avatars’ that are genetically linked to certain individuals whose consciousness can be temporarily transferred to the hybrid avatar that can be controlled remotely. Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) wants Jake to infiltrate the native tribes and get him the information he needs to be complete the mission, but, as Jake meets the Na’vi and experiences the moon and the culture, his worldview changes and he starts to build an affectionate relationship with one of the blue aliens named Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana).

So, how do I look at the film now more than a decade since its original release? Well, Avatar is frankly gorgeous. It succeeds in visually contrasting the opposing groups in the film. The vivid colors of nature are soothing and energizing, especially when compared to the lifeless blues and greys of the human base. Even today the movie looks amazing. I think the teaser trailer for the sequel, sort of, reveals how much technology has moved since 2009. But even though the teaser trailer for the upcoming sequel features richer and better-textured visuals than the original film had, we need to remember that, even though Avatar was groundbreaking at the time of its first release, it, frankly, still looks better than a lot of movies released today.

I also love the spirituality, romance, and environmentalism of Avatar. The movie, even today, really is involving and engaging, and, on rewatch, I found myself being much more invested in Jake Sully and Neytiri’s relationship than I remember being on my first viewing. I think a large part of that — and I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves — is due to the dedicated work done by Zoe Saldana in adding a lot of emotion to her performance and voice work, in addition to the work done by visual effects and animation artists. There is something living and breathing there, and it is her that you gravitate toward alongside Jake.

The action is also just fantastic. James Cameron is one of America’s greatest pop filmmakers, and he, in particular, really nails the aerial combat scenes. Admittedly, there is a lot to keep track of, but the action in the latter half of the film really is impressive. This is James Cameron’s Star Wars, and he really got a lot out of it, which is also partly due to the film’s music. And, I think, its central distinctive musical theme is still just fantastic.

However, the thing about Avatar is that even though it is a great film in so many aspects, some of the criticisms that people have of it are perfectly valid. It, frankly, is too long, and much of it is undeniably very familiar. In fact, I think Cameron borrows a lot from his own films. There is a fair bit of Aliens in this film, and it is easy to tell. On top of that, the title is generic, and the overall story is fairly derivative of films like Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, even if the details that turn this film into science fiction help to make it unique. None of this stops it from being a great film, but it does prevent its archetypical story from sitting with you as being uniquely its own thing. Because it frankly isn’t. Ultimately, I think that it is a good film with astounding visuals and that it merits a sequel, but I also think that the criticism is mostly all valid. It’s not the best thing since sliced bread, but it is pretty great.

7.9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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